A GREEK ODYSSEY
“I've always been a bit of a nomad.
I was born in Romania in a small German-speaking community to parents of Romanian, Greek and Yemeni background. After the fall of communism we emigrated to Sweden.
Education was always important in my family. I studied macroeconomics which analyses the behaviour of the economy as a whole. After graduation, my roles included chief economist of a City financial institution, advisor to Romania’s Prime Minister and writer for the Economist magazine’s research arm, the EIU. Then, I somehow ended up making a hotel and writing novels!
My mum, sister and I have always been close. We loved Greece and together discovered and fell in love with a jewel of a touristically underdeveloped island, called Syros. It is absolutely steeped in history.
The island had never invested in mass tourist opportunities. Mainly because there were so many employment opportunities outside the tourist sector. Also, the islanders had watched the quaint fishing villages of nearby Mykonos become and international party hub and were unimpressed.
Together we wanted to put down roots on the island. For a year, to no avail, we had been trying to find a small holiday apartment for ourselves, and my sister had a little money she wanted to invest. In a fit of exasperation, our estate agent mentioned a particular property.
Lightbulb moment! Our epiphany arrived in the shape of the majestic neoclassical palazzo we had just visited. Our long-suffering estate agent unable to find us a property, told us “The only one for sale in that area is this.”
Sitting on the pavement with my mum and my sister we abandoned the idea of buying a small apartment. Amazingly we were to become hoteliers! The beautiful neoclassical palazzo somehow presented itself as a solution.
Against all odds. In late 2017, we confirmed to a skeptical seller and our estate agent that we would be buying the property. I gave up my London flat and job as an economist and moved to Syros, armed with a freelance contract as an economic journalist.
To help bail us out my darling sister agreed to spend another chilly year up in the Swedish Arctic. She'd been working hard shifts as a locum doctor up there and it was her salary that was going to finance the renovation. Against all odds in May 2018 we secured a mortgage.
The happy news is she was finally able to give up her work there. She had a baby in February and was finally able to move back to the south of Sweden
What made Syros the dream? Its remarkable history for one. Until the early 19th century, the island’s largest settlement was just the medieval Catholic village of Ano Syros, perched on a steep hill. But when the Greek war of independence broke and Syros declared itself neutral, it suddenly attracted waves of refugees from conflict areas in Asia Minor and from other islands.
Luckily, they included an incredibly high concentration of entrepreneurs. It took no more than a few decades to create the city of Hermoupolis and turn it into the industrial and mercantile heart of the eastern Mediterranean, the cultural centre of Greece, and its main port.
Not just any hotel, the Aristide Hotel. Our renovation started in mid 2018 and the project morphed from 'let's make a hotel' to 'let's make our dream hotel!'
Of course, my life is now very different to the one I led in London. But there are so many pluses. Just beneath the hotel, is a lovely beach with perfectly clear water, and together with the backdrop of the neoclassical architecture it is glorious – balm for the soul.
Perfect for walking. The north of the island is a nature reserve, and it’s pristine and open. The walking trails take you along the coast, the inner valleys, or to the many sandy beaches that can only be reached on foot and where you can find yourself alone, even in August.
Surprisingly, Syros is most colourful in winter. There are flowers everywhere and enormous butterflies. And the spiky shrubs create an undulating pattern of shades of green.
Best of both worlds. Of course, I miss my London friends and I miss the theatre. Sometimes I miss the anonymity. But I travel to and fro and it hasn’t been the culture shock that I might have been expected. The island is full of interesting people, its history has seen to that. There are festivals throughout the year, a university, and student bars and art galleries.
When I return to London....I love Exmouth Market for food, Tate Modern, bookshops and Heath walks. Meeting my writer friends and talking about what they are reading and writing.
The pandemic fallout. Well, no-one saw that coming! And because we were a new hotel and had no operating track record, we didn’t qualify for any of the financial assistance offered by the government.
Against the odds, we opened anyway in late July 2020 with just the five rooms we had managed to complete. We had happy guests, we gained good reviews, and a lot of valuable experience.
I have always loved writing and it actually helped to have an ongoing book project as a way of disconnecting from the renovation-related stress. I am the author of ‘Under the Blue’ published by Serpent’s Tail, and I feel fortunate that the book was not overlooked despite bookshops being closed at the time it was published. The novel has garnered five-star reviews from both The Times and Guardian.
Art on the walls. I love art and that is reflected throughout the hotel. In fact the hotel is a veritable gallery. The private permanent collection can be found throughout and the dedicated art gallery hosts temporary exhibitions.
We have one painting in the lobby that I would never ever part with. It's a portrait of one of my favourite humans, Anton Checkov and it's the original which was commissioned by the New Yorker magazine for a story they did on him. They used it as an illustration for the magazine.
Old-new synergy. Hotel Aristide combines old-world elegance and contemporary design. We’re in the aristocratic Vaporia neighbourhood, once the home of shipowners and industrialists. The building, with its dramatic marble staircase and Doric columns, is an architectural gem showcasing Greek Neoclassical and Art Deco styles.
Book that flight! The Aristide has nine suites, along with the art gallery, artists’ residence and workshop, and two stunning bars. Our guests can choose between the garden bar, where they can sip a cocktail in the shade of trees, or the rooftop bar with its open sea views. Heavenly!
Thoughtful restoration. Our hotel has every modern comfort you could wish for, but the technology is harmoniously adapted to the house. Our doors have real, traditional keys, and all the hotel’s materials are authentic.
I love the Gladstn London brand and ethos. I met the owner Richard when he found the Aristide by chance last October and fell in love with the hotel. Our two brands really have a lot in common - journeys, travelling in style, elegance, fine craftsmanship and the added luxury of bespoke. Richard was travelling stylishly with some fabulous Gladstn luggage at the time and that really caught my eye.
So now, I always look out for Gladstn London’s new arrivals and I really love the latest, The Hampton. It’s designed perfectly for summer and has a ‘holiday’ vibe about it.
We’re eco-conscious. We plant trees to offset the carbon footprint of travel to the island and are in discussion with local ecologists. Most of our food is local and organic from Syros or other Cycladic islands.
Reading back through this narrative I can so see how we fell in love with Syros and strove to build our dream hotel. I hope one day you will come and share that with us too!
To find out more about Aristide Syros visit the website here
Oana shared her story with Denise Barrett, Guest Editor and author of Handbag Homage
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